Tom Greensfelder says identifying himself as a calligrapher provokes a predictable reaction. “It’s sort of like telling people you’re a communist,” Greensfelder says. “They think of it as sort of quaint.”

Greensfelder, who teaches at Columbia College and works as a freelance graphic designer, says his friends are always asking him to address party invitations in the flowery script, “but very rarely does somebody come up with the idea of purchasing a piece of calligraphy as a work of art, although there are a lot of calligraphers who are doing it.” Instead, he says, greeting cards and framed sentimental poems have conspired to saddle calligraphy with a serious PR problem.

Greensfelder began studying calligraphy–everything from uncial, the script of ancient Romans and Irish monks, to the flowing copperplate commonly used today–in the mid-1970s in San Francisco. He studied under Thomas Ingmire, a calligrapher who started taking liberties in his work, experimenting with abstract-expressionist form. In many calligraphic artists’ work today, words are submerged in colors and forms, or they don’t make sense at all–letters are used only for the elegance of their lines. Others are moving away from the cliche of allowing the meanings of words to guide the illustration (such as making the letters in the word loud extremely large and colorful), instead using abstract imagery to reflect ideas in the text.

Greensfelder decided to organize a show to demonstrate that calligraphy can be more than just nice handwriting. “Calligraphers are pretty much working in ignorance of how text is being used in artwork today, if you look at Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, or Hans Haacke.”

Greensfelder invited calligraphers from the United States and Europe to submit pieces to “Beautifully Banal: The Last Calligraphy Show,” a title that deliberately plays off the form’s no-respect reputation. “A lot of other crafts have been recognized, like weaving and glassblowing and pottery,” he says. “Why is it that the art world has ignored calligraphy? Maybe it’s because calligraphers aren’t ironic enough. So the idea was, well, we’re going to be painfully ironic in the show so we finally get the respect we deserve.”

The call for submissions caused a minicontroversy in serious calligraphy circles. Greensfelder found himself going pen to pen with Brody Neuenschwander, a calligrapher well-known for his work in director Peter Greenaway’s text-heavy films The Pillow Book and Prospero’s Books. Neuenschwander, an American who lives in Belgium, questioned the purpose of the show in a rather pointed letter to Greensfelder in which he accused him of “an unprincipled capitulation to the values of the post-modern cultural elite for the sake of gaining entry into the cultural institutions that they for the moment control….Calligraphers, in my experience, are often attempting to identify and record some kind of truth. Post-modernists are always attempting to undermine any sense that truth can be arrived at. This is an irreconcilable difference.”

The two traded a couple of faxes (written on computers) and eventually came to some mutual understanding, Greensfelder says. Neuenschwander asked that their correspondence, as well as letters from other calligraphers who joined in the fray, be considered his entry–the ultimate postmodern gesture.

“Beautifully Banal: The Last Calligraphy Show” includes about two dozen entries from calligraphers in the United States and Europe, including Karyn Gilman’s lamp shade lettered with the lyrics to “You Light Up My Life,” Monica Dengo’s video of a futuristic virtual museum that documents Western handwriting at the end of the 20th century, and Thomas Ingmire’s roll of toilet paper emblazoned with a gilded capital and scrolling text. The opening reception is Friday from 5 to 7 at the Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts, on the seventh floor at 218 S. Wabash. A short discussion will follow. The exhibit continues through May 7. For more information call 312-431-8612.

–Todd Savage

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tom Greensfelder; “The Shape of Your Future” by Pamela Paulsrud; “Seriously Banal” by Brody Neuenschwander photos by Dan Machnik..